One Word Kill: A tale of teens, time travel, D&D, and cancer

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOne Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

One Word Kill (2019) is a tale of 1980s British teenagers, time travel (bonus: with branching universes), Dungeons & Dragons, and cancer. As the first book in Mark Lawrence’s IMPOSSIBLE TIMES trilogy, it sets things up nicely, and we’re all three looking forward to the next two novellas.

We know that the first-person narrator of the story has cancer ― leukaemia, to be precise ― from the very first paragraph of the story. Fifteen-year-old Nick is something of a genius, though his smarts don’t show much yet except in his choice of reading material during chemotherapy sessions. He has a group of close friends with whom he plays Dungeons & Dragons every Saturday, which group has recently been augmented by the addition of ― gasps of astonishment, everyone! ― a girl, Mia, to whom Nick is immediately drawn. He also has a couple of enemies, like Ian Rust, who is at least viciously cruel and at most seriously mentally disturbed, and Michael Devis, who is simply a garden-variety bully. He also has a devoted mother; his father, a brilliant mathematician, died some years before the book begins.

One Word Kill gets off to a slow start, and it isn’t until about page 50 that we officially meet Demus, a bald man who appears out of nowhere to slug Michael Devis in the mouth just as Devis is about to empty Nick’s backpack into a pool of vomit. Demus looks troublingly familiar to Nick, and the reader figures out why pretty quickly (the clues aren’t exactly subtle). Soon Demus is explaining time travel to Nick, setting out a rationale for it in quantum mechanics, and giving Nick puzzles to solve to make his future ― and, significantly, Mia’s ― possible.

Things grow ominous when Ian Rust is expelled from school and takes up with a local drug dealer to whom Mia owes a debt. Demus makes things even more difficult by asking for a piece of technology that doesn’t exist except as a prototype in Nick’s time.

The ending of One Word Kill is left open. Though it could be a stand-alone novella, most readers will want to know what happens to these characters in the future and we’re glad that the story continues in Limited Wish.Impossible Times (3 book series) Kindle Edition

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIn Terry’s opinion, there is quite a lot of blood and vomit and death in One Word Kill, but a strange lack of urgency. It was decidedly not a page-turner for her, and surprisingly so, given the conflicts Lawrence has set up for his characters. But she finds Nick and Mia to be compelling characters, enough to make her want to keep reading the trilogy.

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsKat listened to Brilliance Audio’s edition which was nicely read by British narrator Matthew Frow. She liked One Word Kill better than Terry did. Quite a bit of this is probably due to nostalgia: she is only two years younger than the author and exactly the right age to relate to Nick and his friends as teenagers in the 1980’s. For that reason, One Word Kill felt more cozy than slow.

She also liked the characters, the way that Nick tried to process his diagnosis and treatment, the way his friends had trouble dealing emotionally with it, and the way that Nick interacted with a girl in the chemotherapy ward at the hospital.

Kat loves time-travel /possible-future themed-stories and, though there are a couple of plot details in One Word Kill that feel a bit shaky at this moment, she is trusting Mark Lawrence (who has a degree in math and a PhD in physics) to bring it to a tight conclusion.

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTadiana’s rating lands at 3.5 stars, right between Kat’s and Terry’s. She found the plot intriguing (like Kat, Tadiana is a fan of time travel tales and strongly predisposed to approve of them). Mark Lawrence’s writing style is also a noticeable step up from the usual:

A decade seemed like forever, and it would take three of them just to reach the age my mother was right now. Cancer had closed that down. Like the big C, curling in on itself, my view of the future had narrowed to tunnel vision, aimed squarely at the next week, next month … would I have a next year? I was carrying not only the burden of my sickness but the pressure of making something worthwhile of each day now that my towering stack of them had fallen into ruin and left me clutching at each hour as it slipped between my fingers.

The characters also appealed to Tadiana (well, except for the psychopathic Rust, with the “hole in his mind that needed to be filled with other people’s pain”) and the plot kept her engaged and interested. When all was said and done, though, the motivation for Demus’ trip to the past seems clearly insufficient, given the high price that Demus knows it will cost. To say more would get us into spoiler territory, but perhaps the next book will clarify why it was so vitally necessary. As it currently stands, it was a big enough plot hole for Tadiana to knock down her rating by a star, especially when combined with too many logical questions being sidestepped with the rationale that Demus has to take certain actions simply because that’s the way it happened before.

Lawrence’s choice of “One Word Kill” as the title of this novel plays out in at least a couple of ways. A key point in a couple of the characters’ D&D games is a spell named “Power Word Kill”; Nick points out how “lame” he thinks this spell is because with every other bad thing that happens, there’s some chance, however small, that you can escape. But with Power Word Kill, there’s no chance at all to escape the spell if it’s cast at you. That same sense of inexorable death looms over Nick personally because of that “one word” every human dreads to hear: “Cancer.” But perhaps there’s a narrow way out for Nick after all…

The next book, Limited Wish, has just been released and we expect that the final book, Dispel Illusion, will be out later this year. We’ll let you know how they go.

Published in 2019. In January 1986, fifteen-year-old boy-genius Nick Hayes discovers he’s dying. And it isn’t even the strangest thing to happen to him that week. Nick and his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are used to living in their imaginations. But when a new girl, Mia, joins the group and reality becomes weirder than the fantasy world they visit in their weekly games, none of them are prepared for what comes next. A strange—yet curiously familiar—man is following Nick, with abilities that just shouldn’t exist. And this man bears a cryptic message: Mia’s in grave danger, though she doesn’t know it yet. She needs Nick’s help—now. He finds himself in a race against time to unravel an impossible mystery and save the girl. And all that stands in his way is a probably terminal disease, a knife-wielding maniac and the laws of physics. Challenge accepted.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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4 comments

  1. random commentor /

    I enjoyed it while I was reading it (being a D&D person), but was disturbed by the utterly selfish, immoral choice that Demus makes (avoiding spoilers). As a reader, I think that was glossed over, but should have been central to a time travel story.

    • I agree; that’s the issue I was referring to when I said (in the review above) that “the motivation for Demus’ trip to the past seems clearly insufficient, given the high price that Demus knows it will cost.” The second book hasn’t done anything to satisfy me about that huge logical (or at least motivational) hole, but I’m still holding some hope that the third book will give us a better explanation.

      • You guys are right. I had hoped that this issue would be taken care of in the second book (i.e., there’d be some reason that sacrifice had to be made) but it hasn’t been. It seems unlikely that Demus would make that decision since he had experienced what Nick went through.

        • random commenter /

          I enjoyed Red Sister and am currently reading Grey Sister — my first Mark Lawrence books. However I don’t think I’ll continue with the Demus series.

          Thanks for reading book 2 so I don’t have to. My TBR bookshelf is piled high as it is.

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